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May 12, 2009

Rating Woes


I have a friend, a young film critic, who is incensed that the upcoming Terminator: Salvation has been given a PG-13 rating. And he's not the only one. I understand where he and others like him are coming from, yet I cannot identify with their anger, nor my friend's assumption that the more family-friendly rating is an automatic reflection of the film's assumed poor quality.

Doubtless the rating decision is a marketing move - the film will take in far more money the wider an audience it can attract. That's basic economics. Playing to those economics, at the expense of artistry and the creative process is, unequivocally, shameful. But is that what's going on here?

Director McG has stated that he cut very little to bring Terminator: Salvation within the PG-13 guidelines - one scene of violence and another of nudity. Losing both scenes, he said, in no way impinged on the holistic, structural integrity of the story. If that is indeed the case - and what more do we have to go on right now than his word - the gratuity he describes won't be missed by anyone other than those who go to movies seeking little more than titillation.

Condemning all R-rated films simply because they are R-rated is misguided. Some stories, in pursuit of the truth of their narrative, naturally incur an R-rating. Would The Passion of the Christ have been nearly as effective had Christ's torture and crucifixion been sanitized? Tragically, we do not live in a G or even PG world. Ours is a fallen world and, struggle as we might to bring the light, we harm our witness and make a mockery of the truth if we claim otherwise. When a film reflects the world as it truly is, oftentimes an R-rating is inevitable. (I am in no way implying that Terminator: Salvation throbs with a message of Christian redemption, no matter what the title may imply.)

In the same way, we cannot decry films that mange to relay this truth (or simply entertain) without gratuitous sex and violence as a necessary prime mover for their plot. Good drama (or comedy for that matter) is hardly beholden to body counts and bare breasts. As another, older critic friend recently said, "Wantonness doesn't equal quality."


It will be interesting to see if McG sticks with this version of the film once it is released on DVD. Remember how Live Free or Die Hard -- a PG-13 film that followed three R-rated films, just like Terminator Salvation -- was released in an "unrated" version on DVD?

Hmm. I've met a lot of fellow believers who can't find anything wrong with a raunchy PG-13 romantic comedy whose core message is "do what feels good!", but who run for the hills (or give a lecture on sinful media consumption) every time the dreaded R-rating rears its head. The best film I've seen about redemption and the destructive nature of unconfessed sin is The Machinist, a little-known Spanish-made pic starring Christian Bale and including the f-word. And a prostitute. This is not to say that I only watch deep, redemptive R-rated flicks - I added Shaun of the Dead to my collection this past weekend. It's possible I deserve a lecture for that one.

Ratings board are such odd, unpredictable creatures. I've lately been playing Fallout 3, a stunning and philosophically rich RPG that unfortunately works very hard to earn its M rating (the game equivalent of NC-17). It's the first game I've played that has extreme, gratuitous gore. It also caused a flap prior to its international release, because the Australian ratings board wouldn't permit the game in-country as the makers of Fallout 3 had been referring to morphine in the game as, well, "morphine." The game's constant stream of gratuitous, often physically impossible decapitations and dismemberments didn't raise a quibble with the Aussie board, but morphine was crossing the line.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, it's becoming increasingly difficult to judge rated media by its rating. I've seen PG-13 films that watch like R-rateds, and R-rated films that earned that title purely because the f-word was used twice and not in reference to sex. I wouldn't read anything at all into Terminator: Salvation's rating, except perhaps that PG-13 films do better at the box office.

They will probably have a rated and unrated version when it comes out on DVD (Taken has been released rated and unrated). If only a scene of gratuitous violence and a scene of gratuitous nudity were removed, what's the big deal? What I care about is the story and the acting, not blood and boobs.